Korea gets creative

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Korea gets creative


Hanmi Pharmaceutical’s series of licensing feats has been mind-boggling. In five blockbuster deals it won so far this year, the Korean drug-maker could earn as much as 7.56 trillion won ($6.53 billion). It opened a new chapter in Korea’s pharmaceutical history and demonstrated the country’s potential in medicine development. Never did people think that Korean drug producers, which mostly reproduced products whose proprietary rights by multinational brands had expired, could earn millions by selling their own technologies overseas. Hanmi’s ascent has been as stunning as the local electronics manufacturers that stole the global lead in memory chips and smartphones after persistent investments.

It’s a pity that people are only interested in how rich Hanmi will become. One share of the company, which sold for 65,600 won at the end of 2011, is expected to soon fetch over 1 million won. But its success has not come overnight. It was the result of endless trials by lab researchers of the company. Science labs are hardly a fun place to be. Microbiology labs can be life-threatening. Bacterial colonies are cultured in shallow Petri dishes. Growing cells in a closed lab can be laborious and tedious work. But labs go through the processes non-stop. Some studies have been automated, but they still require a human eye and supervision by sophisticated researchers and scientists.

Scientists must fight with boredom and isolation, and keep up the persistence and commitment to see through the experiments that can add value to their companies - and sometimes help prolong lives. Hanmi’s achievement has been the culmination of passion, patience and devotion of its scientists. One lab staffer working on a project for a pharmaceutical company was in tears, saying the Hanmi breakthrough was a success that local lab scientists have all been waiting for. The managements of local pharmaceutical companies long considered new development out of their league. Research and development usually requires millions or billions of dollars. British multinational pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) was born in 2000 through a merger of Glaxo Wellcome (formed from Glaxo’s 1995 acquisition of Burroughs Welcomme) and SmithKline Beecham (from the 1989 merger of SmithKline Beckman and Beecham Group). To share the burden of cost and risk in new drug development, companies have to merge sometimes in multiple stages. Small local players can hardly afford to take such risks. Hanmi’s founder and chairman, Lim Sung-ki, found an affordable way to pursue R&D. His company worked on molecules that have already been proven for safety and effect to develop ways to augment their merits and reduce the side effects to turn them into novel value-added materials.

Hanmi’s foothold in the R&D sector has brought confidence to our industry. Lee Dong-ho, former head of the Korea Drug Development Fund, said, “We did not think Korea could earn money through R&D, and the government mostly kept watch on the projects to make sure tax money doesn’t go elsewhere.” The Korean R&D drive will receive new traction now that Hanmi has proven the economic value of creative R&D work, he added. Yang Bong-min, a professor at the Graduate School of Public Health at Seoul National University, pointed out the pharmaceutical sector is an area that has a lot of economic potential because the global pharmaceutical market will continue to grow on innovations.

The local industry often cannot pursue R&D because of the financial burden of sharing the costs of the national health insurance policy, and the government should change its policy to promote the industry as a sector for new growth, he added. To encourage such passion in R&D, lab workers must be respected for their work and motivated to go on. Haymaking from the Hanmi momentum will be possible by paying attention to the people behind the glory.

JoongAng Ilbo, Nov. 12, Page 32

The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Chae In-taek

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